Book Review: Unsheltered

By: Barbara Kingsolver

Review: I’m drawn to family sagas, and Unsheltered is just that. It interweaves the story of two families connected by the same house yet separated by 150 years. While not one of Kingsolvers finest, it’s passable and for me it fits into the ‘Brain Clearing’ category. Structurally, it alternates chapters between the two families, dedicating good chunks each and allowing for reasonably well developed characters, even if it is a tad repetitive at times. It’s certainly a worthy read if for nothing other than the historical references, particularly those relating to the theories of Charles Darwin and the public’s responses at the time.

Pages: 480

Genre:Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Brain Clearing

Published:November 2018

Reviewer:Jody

Blurb:

2016 Vineland

Meet WillaKnox, a woman who stands braced against an upended world that seems to hold normercy for her shattered life and family – or the crumbling house that containsher.

1871 Vineland

ThatcherGreenwood, the new science teacher, is a fervent advocate of the work ofCharles Darwin, and he is keen to communicate his ideas to his students. Butthose in power in Thatcher’s small town have no desire for the new world order.Thatcher and his teachings are not welcome.

Both Willa and Thatcher resist the prevailing logic. Bothe are asked to pay a high price fortheir courage. But both also find inspiration – and an unlikely kindred spirit– in Mary Treat, a scientist, adventurer and anachronism.

A testament to both the resilience and persistent myopia of the human condition, Unsheltered explores the foundations we build in life, spanning time and place to give us all a clearer look at those around us, and perhaps ourselves. It is a novel that speaks truly to our times.

Book Review: Home Fire

by Kamila Shamsie

Review: This is a book that matters. It makes us think about what can sometimes be seen as a paradox between the law and what is justice. We’re confronted with questioning how society views family loyalty, politics, race and religion and how the decisions we make impact each of our lives and what is means to feel connected and to belong. This is a book that challenges our world view by asking us to consider the different perspectives when it comes to extremism by opening the door to a level of understanding of the choices that individuals make.

I was captivated by Shamsies’ retelling of Sophocles ancient tragedy of Antigone, and compelled to explore a deeper understanding of how the classic is re-imagined through the contemporary setting. They’re both overwhelmingly good.

Pages: 288

Genre: Literary Fiction

Awards: Woman’s Prize for Fiction 2018, Book of the Year 2015: Guardian; Observer; Telegraph; New Statesman; Evening Standard; New York Times, Shortlisted for the Coasta novel Award 2017, Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2017.

Reviewer: Jody

Blurb: Isma is free. After years spent raising her twin siblings in the wake of their mother’s death, she is finally studying in America, resuming a dream long deferred. But she can’t stop worrying about Aneeka, her beautiful, headstrong, sister back in London – or their brother, Parvaiz, who’s disappeared in pursuit of his own dream: to prove himself to the dark legacy of the jihadist father he never knew.

Then Eamonn enters the sisters’ lives. Handsome and privileged, he inhabits a London worlds away from theirs. As the son of a powerful British Muslim politician, Eamonn has his birthright to lie up to – or defy. Is he to be a chance at love? The means of Parvaiz’s salvation? Two families fates are inextricably, devastatingly entwined in this searing novel that asks: what sacrifices will we make in the name of love?

A contemporary re-imagining of Sophocles’ Antigone, Home Fire is an urgent, fiercely compelling story of loyalties torn apart when love and politics collide – confirming Kamila Shamsie as a master storyteller of our times.

Book Review: ‘Ghostly Tales: Spine-chilling Stories of the Victorian Age’, illustrations by Bill Bragg

Review: Give me a good psychological horror, add in a hardback edition with haunting illustrations and the subtle formality of the writing style of the 1800’s, and you’ve nailed one of my many reading pleasures! This is a collection of seven short stories, some familiar and some new to me. Although none are truly terrifying, I must confess as I was driving home a week ago in the midst of a storm, a modern version of Amelia B. Edwards, ‘The Phantom Coach’, was playing out in my mind. Through these stories I was reminded of the mastery of Dickens with ‘The Signalman’, while being introduced to F. Marion Crawford, who had me sitting by the fire, three parts gone with a glass of Hulstkamp, right beside Captain Charles Braddock while listening to his tale of the screaming skull. Every now and then we need to be reminded of what good writing is, and it’s right here.

Pages: 175

Genre: Horror

Reviewer: Jody

Blurb: A vengeful phantom lurks in a country graveyard. A whaling crew becomes trapped on a haunted ship. A human skull is kept locked in a cupboard, but sometimes at night, it screams….This collection of tales will transport you to a time when staircases creaked in old manor houses, and a candle could be blown out by a gust of wind, or by a passing ghost. Penned by some of the greatest Victorian novelists and masters of the ghost story genre, these stories come alive alongside exquisitely eerie art in this special illustrated edition.

Source: Dubin, E. (Designed by), Ghostly Tales: Spine-chilling Stories of the Victorian Age’, illustrations by Bill Bragg, (2017), Chronicle Books, San Francisco.

Quarterly Bookclub 3 – Wrap

Good Morning All,

A big thank-you to Gina for hosting and her food spread, your table always looks amazing. I’ve decided that if one eats lots of fruit, it counterbalances the chocolate consumed. Fran, your spanakopita is spectacular, and welcome at any gathering!

Next Meetup: Friday, 29th June

Venue: Jody’s home, 7.00pm

Book: ‘White Teeth’, by Zadie Smith

Secondary Book: ‘Frankenstein’, by Mary Shelley

Poetry: Your choice

I love waking up to days like this. Today my little corner of the world is like a vortex, as the windows are flexing in the wind and from here the whitecaps on the water look almost tidal, a sea mist is hovering and threatening to descend. And now comes the rain, a perfect day to spend in my reading chair!

As I was leaving for Bookclub the other night I bumped into my neighbour. We had a quick chat about our various weekend plans, both commenting on the pleasures of a quiet weekend in. Descending in the elevator I reflected on the bottle of bubbly and the book in my hands, this wasn’t one of those nights, tonight I get to go down into the rabbit hole that in everyday life we tend to avoid for the sake of decorum and not offending or being offended. So that’s what Bookclub is to me, it’s a few hours where we get to talk about topics and themes where sometimes we’re objective and measured and sometimes we’re passionate and unrestrained, but we’re always thoughtful and respectful. For me, it’s a privilege to share time with this amazing group.

Moby Dick! What an expedition, and one that we’re all richer for having had, no matter how far each of us made it through this object of vertu. We all agreed that this certainly is a book that demands much from its reader, there’s no doubt that it’s bloody hard work, and yet it rewards you on every page. It teaches us, it makes us feel a little wiser, it respects us as readers, it assumes that we are capable and leaves us better off for having made it a part of our lives for however long. We were all in awe of Melville’s depth of knowledge at the age of thirty-one. This is the work of an exceptional writer which Sandy captures well, as it’s not just the ‘language, as well as the mind and personality of Melville that shines through. It is beautifully descriptive as well as philosophical.’ We all appreciated the short chapter style, allowing much needed respite at times, while adding to is charm.

So which rabbit hole did we fall into? Gina drew our attention to chapter 89 which gave an insight into the legislation around ownership at the time, using the analogy of a ‘harpooned woman’ and her being the possession of her husband, while pointedly asking the question directly to the reader about each of our part in being both ‘a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish’, a chapter I encourage everyone to read again or even on its own. While insightful in context of the time, it provided fodder for a fascinating discussion on equality of representation in organisations, positive discrimination and whether analogies can or even should be drawn with minority groups despite women being around half the population.

Moby-dick is a most certainly a gift to readers. If you ever have the opportunity to read this for the first time or again it will be worth every moment you invest in it. Make no mistake, it is hard work, but give yourself time and be patient and you will be better placed to tackle this leviathanic opus.

Just a quick comment about our secondary book; I was having a look at the ‘Readings Bookstore’ website under Bookclub recommendations and came across the suggestion to pair the original Frankenstein with a book, a reimagining of the original, that’s been long listed for this years Booker Prize, ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’, by Ahmed Saadawi. Published in 2014, it won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction so could be an interesting read also.

Until next time,

J xx

Book Review: Force of Nature

By Jane Harper

Review: Some years ago I heard the term ‘brain clearing’ being used to describe books that don’t ask too much of the reader but are engaging enough to keep you anchored. I put great value in these type of books, to the point where I think they deserve their own genre. This is one of those books and can easily be read in a day. It’s clear, simple and structurally well enough written with a formula that incrementally builds the characters and story to keep you interested enough, despite it being a tad repetitive in parts. The scene of Jane Harper’s second novel is a work retreat where two groups have to hike for three days in the bush, just the place to test relationships and pick through everyone’s dysfunctional families. Predictably things don’t go to plan and we again meet Agent Aaron Falk as he solves his next case along with a few recurring characters from Harpers first novel ‘The Dry’, although each can be read independently. This is just the type of book to read when life around you is a bit crazy, you don’t want to think too hard and you just need a few moments to zone out. Don’t expect too much of it and it won’t expect too much of you.

Number of pages: 380

Genre: Crime Fiction, Brain Clearing

Blurb: What has happened to Alice Russell?

Five women reluctantly pick up their backpacks and start walking along the muddy track. Only four come out the other side.

The hike through the rugged Giralang Ranges is meant to take the office colleagues out of their air-conditioned comfort zone and teach resilience and team building. At least that is what the corporate retreat website advises.

Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk has a keen interest in the whereabouts of the missing bushwalker. Alice Russell is the whistleblower in his latest case. She knows all the secrets: about the company she works for and the people she works with.

Far from the hike encouraging teamwork, Falk is told a tale of violence and disintegrating trust. And as he delves into the disappearance, it seems some dangers run far deeper than anyone knew.

Blurb Source: Harper, J., Force of Nature, (2017), Sydney, New South Wales, Pan Macmillan Australia Pty Ltd.

* Feel free to add your own review as a comment

Book Review: Moby-Dick (or The Whale)

By Herman Melville

Review: Initially I was having trouble engaging with this book, repeatedly returning to the start as my reading was not doing it justice. I found an audio on Spotify, this worked by slowing down my reading and allowing me to really appreciate the breadth of mastery of the descriptive language combined with the formality of the 1800’s. There’s layers of references, some of which I grasped and some I didn’t, a richer experience for those that I did manage to connect with and awed – not frustrated – by those beyond my comprehension. Make no mistake, it’s dense, demanding, and sometimes you feel like you’re swimming through concrete, but it’s also intricate and poetic with many lines for pause, reflection and savouring. It’s filled with razor sharp observations; social commentary; character studies; philosophy; mythology; religious, scientific and historical analysis; tradition and superstition; and humanity. An epic and sophisticated book that places high expectations on its reader, yet I’m sure that the more life experience I have the more it will reward.

Pages: 625

Genre: Classics, Literary Fiction

First Published: 1851

Blurb: “It is the horrible texture of a fabric that should be woven of ships’ cables and hawsers. A Polar wind blows through it, and birds of prey hover over it.”

So Melville wrote of his masterpiece, one of the greatest works of imagination in literary history. In part, Moby-Dick is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopaedia of whaling lore and legend, the book can be seen as part of its author’s lifelong meditation on America. Moby-Dick can be read as a “disorderly elegy” to democracy, which Melville saw threatened on many sides: by the spirit of utilitarianism, by America’s accelerating pace of expansionism, and by the drive toward industrial power. Written with wonderfully redemptive humour, Moby-Dick is also a profound inquiry into character, faith, and the nature of perception.

Blurb Source: Melville, H., (1992), Moby-Dick, New York, Penguin

* Please add your own (one paragraph only) reviews by using the ‘comments’ option.

Welcome

For many years I’ve wanted to join a book club, but have found it impossible to commit to monthly meetings for various reasons, or if I did, what about the guilt I would feel if life got in the way and I didn’t manage to finish the book, or what if I simply chose not to continue with the nominated book because I was finding no value in doing so. Would that be considered a legitimate choice? Or would I be crucified for my decision? So part way through 2017 I decided to create the Quarterly Bookclub for people like me. Most people I talked to felt that they could make it to a quarterly event and hoped that they just might be able to read a prescribed book every three months. What I wanted most was to create an accessible space for people to be able to share a love of books and reading but remove the obligation, pressure and regulation. This site is an extension of all those ideals, and an attempt to tap into the vast resources of others known or not.

If I’m lucky enough to see my 95th birthday I may be able to read another 2,288 books, and that’s only if I can maintain a one book a week pace. When I first became aware of this I felt alarm, as for the past year or so I’d lost my reading mojo, a slump that’s a book lovers worst nightmare. Almost every book I seemed to pick up was either poorly written, formulaic or bloody beige. I’m no writer, my skills don’t lie in that area and I’ve battled with grammar all my life. While I may not always be able to articulate why a book is well written, I think I can recognise one when I read it.

I became disillusioned with reviews when I selected a book based on industry trusted praise, only to get to the end and be utterly perplexed as to why? I thought that I’d missed the whole point, the story was boring, the writing was clunky and poor and in need of a good editor. I dug a little and found that the author was the daughter of a respected publisher. Of course I understand that there’s a level of subjectivity that needs to be allowed for and that a readers journey is personal. But I felt ripped off and vowed to be more circumspect with the reviews I chose to listen to.

I sought out alternative reviews to book sellers and those with vested interests, and so began subscribing to a plethora of magazines and visiting online review platforms. I was astounded by the length of the reviews and frustrated when a reviewer spent most of their time waffling on about various related or unrelated topics and only a couple of paragraphs about the actual book. I felt like it was more about them and their own ego. Or there was the online reviews that were formatted on the right of reply, which incidentally is a general concept I support, only to be preachy and/or about slagging off the previous reviewer. Half a dozen of these reviews and I’d lost an hour, and while I acknowledge the value in all of these mediums, I want to spend my valuable time reading an actual good book.

It’s not a cliché to say that time is valuable when in today’s world it really is just that. Quite frankly I don’t have enough of it available to spend hours researching. I want to read a review that’s independent, tells me if a book is well written, and lets me know if there’s a good story for me to be able to connect with. Or it may be that I’m following an idea or am curious about a current affairs or perhaps a social commentary topic and seeking to be better informed and exposed to various opinions and theories. When I have time for reading I want do all I can to make it count.

With respect to books, I want this to be a forum that provides short, one paragraph reviews. So by all means please contribute, be frank and fair with your reviews but restrict yourself to the book only. We also don’t need to resort to personal attacks on each other or the author despite how we feel about the book, surely we can be honest without that. We have an inch, so let’s not take a mile. On this point I will be strict and reserve full rights to delete anything that I feel goes against the spirit of what we’re trying to achieve. Which is to fill a gap in the review space that caters for busy people who don’t have the luxury of spare time to waste on banal endeavours and the ego of others.

While reading is certainly one of my great loves, I also feel energised by good conversations. I don’t mind difficult topics and feel that there’s a lot to gain from discussions that represent a multitude of opinions, thoughts and ideas. One overriding factor that is critical for me when I take part in such exchanges, is that those who participate be able to maintain their dignity and we all display a level of respect for each other by not descending into personal attacks. No value comes from this. I want to be able to learn from others and be able to allow the evolvement of my own thoughts, ideas and opinions as I become more informed. With this in mind, at various times I may introduce a topic for discussion and it is my hope that we can draw on our vast resources to be able to expand our knowledge and provide varied reading resources, publications, journal articles, essays, and perhaps even poetry and podcasts to enliven and enlighten. The eternal optimist in me believes that we can create a space for this type of exchange.

I may not get it right all the time and I expect there will always be books or discussions that I don’t like or enjoy for whatever reason, but quite frankly that in itself is not a good enough reason not to expose myself to them. However what I do want is to spend my remaining years reading wisely, widely and as well as possible while continually reflecting on my position.

So please join in and connect if you feel this is for you.

J xx

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